Morgan (2016)


Mirror images.

Mirror images.

(2016) Sci-Fi Thriller (20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Crispian Belfrage, Amybeth McNulty, Jonathan Aris, Charlotte Asprey, Frank Cannon, Bobby Marrio, Martin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Harris. Directed by Luke Scott

 

As our technology and scientific understanding progress, we will be confronted by questions having to do with what it means to be human – and whether or not that definition is broad enough to cover the wonders that are sure to follow. Will artificial life forms have the same compunctions we do? Can we ever truly trust them?

Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is the results of a bio-engineering experiment using artificial DNA. She is brilliant, strong and yet emotionally immature; she’s only five years old chronologically speaking although she is in her teens in terms of physical development. When she suddenly and without warning attacks a psychologist (Leigh) in the compound, the corporation funding the experiments sends risk analyst Lee Weathers (Mara) to make the determination if the plug should be pulled on the experiment.

When she reaches the secluded Pacific Northwest compound where the scientists studying Morgan are housed, she is met with wariness. Lee is surprised to find the personal attachment many of the scientists have with Morgan with the exception of nutritionist Skip Vronsky (Holbrook) who still refers to Morgan as “it.” The rest of the team has bonded with the girl in spite of the attack on one of their number; they show affection towards her, even though they keep her in what amounts to a cage.

After an examination by another psychologist (Giamatti) ends in disaster, the lead scientist on the Morgan project (Yeoh) reluctantly decides to terminate Morgan which meets with resistance from the team, but Lee is adamant that the directive be carried out. However, like all living beings, Morgan is possessed with a strong survival instinct. She also has not only the ability to use it, but deadly abilities not even her handlers were aware she had.

Artificial life forms gone amuck have long been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi horror films. This isn’t really a horror movie per se, although there are some pieces of shocking violence here (particularly the initial sequence). Mostly this is a thriller with philosophical overtones as the cold, calculating Lee is put up against the occasionally sympathetic Morgan, although at the end of the film all our sympathies are confused.

Most will see the twist coming, although that isn’t the fault of the actors involved. Mara and Taylor-Joy both play polar opposites for much of the movie and both do credible jobs, with Mara getting a slight edge in terms of performance. The supporting cast, including Leigh, Yeoh and Giamatti, are stellar and are sadly underused here; their combined screen time is probably less than ten minutes all told and we end up wishing to have seen more of them by the time the movie ends.

There are some beautiful images here as well, with Ireland subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Then again, this is a micro-budgeted film and that unfortunately shows in some of the production design; for whatever reason the housing compound for the supposedly high tech facility is ramshackle and looks pointedly like the Psycho house. If they had just gotten ordinary dormitories it would have looked more realistic and I can’t believe it would have cost them any more to use, particularly in the exterior shots.

Mostly this is a credible thriller that goes off the rails near the end of the movie when it becomes a standard action film and quite frankly, the action portions aren’t particularly noteworthy. That spoils some of the nifty mood making that Scott engaged in during the bulk of the movie, in which viewers are given a disturbing feeling that things Aren’t Quite Right Here, which of course most would know anyway from seeing the trailer.

Scott has some good techniques and when he gets something in his wheelhouse, he knows what to do with it. I can’t say if he’ll end up being as good or better a director as his dad but for my money he has the potential to do so. Let’s hope he finds the right material to enable him to do just that.

REASONS TO GO: Mara is cold and remorseless. The film raises some interesting philosophical questions.
REASONS TO STAY:
Another film peopled with characters who don’t behave like real people. Several terrific actors in the cast are wasted in roles that go nowhere.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence in the film is pretty brutal; there’s also a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott is the son of director Ridley Scott.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ex-Machina
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Train to Busan

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Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

Ex-Machina


Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani, Elina Alminas, Chelsea Li, Ramzan Miah, Caitlin Morton, Deborah Rosan, Johanna Thea, Evie Wray. Directed by Alex Garland

What differentiates man from machine? One creates the other, true, but as machines grow more intelligent, able to make decisions without intervention, the difference becomes more and more narrow. We are moving clumsily but ever steadily in the direction of artificial intelligence – machines that can actually think, rationalize and eventually, feel. What will the difference be then?

Caleb (Gleeson) is a code warrior in a cubicle at Blue Book, the world’s most popular search engine who has an extraordinarily mundane life but all that changes when he wins a contest at work to spend a week in the mountain retreat of the reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). The man is something of a personal hero to Caleb; Nathan had, after all, written the essential software that powers his profit-generating search engine when he was but 13 years old. Caleb in that sense is more of a late bloomer.

He’s also feeling a bit awkward when the helicopter taking him to the mansion lets him off a mile or so away; Nathan doesn’t like to be disturbed by the noises of civilization. But Nathan tries to dispel that awkwardness between boss and employee by explaining how hung over he was that morning. Looks like the two are well on the way to a bromance.

But Nathan has ulterior motives and Caleb didn’t just win a random drawing; he was chosen, selected even. You see, Nathan’s home is also something of a research facility with Nathan the sole researcher and what he’s doing is a bit of a doozy – he’s developed the world’s first artificial intelligence, giving it a female form and calling it Ava (Vikander).

And more to the point, Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to determine if she has a true A.I., one which would revolutionize science as we know it. And Ava seems to be passing with flying colors, able to draw expressively as well as discuss intelligently nearly any subject on earth, and the one subject she wants to study most of all is Caleb who is the only other human she’s seen besides Nathan.

For the most part, Caleb is amazed but he begins to get suspicious. Nathan seems to be drunk nearly all the time and the only other person in the house is the servant girl Kyoko (Mizuno) who speaks no English and is badly treated by Nathan. During one of the frequent power outages, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not being straight with him and that he is lying about virtually everything.

Caleb is in a quandary.. On the one hand, he is at ground zero of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, but he is not at all convinced that Nathan is completely stable – and there is the possibility that he’s being manipulated. But by whom and to what end?

Intelligent science fiction is a bit of an oxymoron in Hollywood; mostly, the studios keep their sci-fi to action packed space opera adventures, or dark dystopian nightmares that are usually – you guessed it – action packed. When one comes along like this film that gets the grey matter some exercise, it’s a pretty good day right there. That it is entertaining as all get out is an extra added bonus.

Isaac has in a very short time become an actor whose presence in a film is sufficient reason for me to go see it. He has enormous presence and here he plays a charismatic tech billionaire but one with an agenda that he keeps well-hidden, although there are plenty of red flags – the rooms that Caleb isn’t allowed to access, the non-disclosure agreement that Caleb is required to sign right off the bat, the flashes of temperament. Nathan is ostensibly the villain here but he’s no standard mad scientist – although he is the definition of one when all is said and done – but more a misunderstood genius who has become too used to getting whatever whim he has seen to immediately.

Gleeson is not yet to the level of Isaac but he is heading down that road. He was really, really good in About Time and he has that Joe Ordinary quality that makes him instantly identifiable. Sweet-natured and a bit naive, Caleb is puppy-eager to please early on but quickly establishes that he is his own man and he has a genuine moral qualm with keeping Ava locked up with the certain knowledge that his report will lead to Ava being “upgraded” which will essentially wipe clean her memory. The body will live but the soul will be gone.

The special effects are eye-popping. Considering the modest budget that the film had, it’s quite frankly amazing how they pulled off some of the effects shots that they did. Looking at Ava for example, whose mid-section, arms and legs are clear where the servo mechanisms are clearly seen as well as whatever is behind Ava at the time. I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out how they did it and I imagine it was some sort of motion capture, but that’s generally crazy expensive so I’m probably wrong on that score. The mountain forest backgrounds are pretty spectacular as well.

Garland has pulled off an impressive directing debut (he has been a novelist and a screenwriter for some time, with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later among his impressive credits) in slick fashion and seems poised to become a mover and shaker in the business. His next stint in the director’s chair is rumored to be Annihilation, also a science fiction film this time for Paramount and you can bet that there are a whole lot of studios headed his way with projects ear-marked for him – I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel and DC will be among them.

So he has a bright future, but the present is what we’re about here. This is one incredible, impressive movie, one you’ll be talking about for weeks and months to come. If you’re a film lover who shies away from sci-fi, trust me this is going to be remembered right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner when it comes to not just great science fiction films but great films in general.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligent throughout. Leads all do stellar work. Impressive special effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the ending a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty good amount of foul language, plenty of graphic nudity, a little bit of violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Gleeson are featured in the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.I.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Monsters: Dark Continent

Chappie


Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

(2014) Science Fiction (Columbia) Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema, Anderson Cooper, Maurice Carpede, Jason Cope, Kevin Otto, Chris Shields, Bill Marchant, Robert Hobbs, Mark K. Xulu, Sheridon Marema, Shaheed Hajee, Arran Henn. Directed by Neil Blomkamp

Law enforcement is by definition a dangerous job. Police officers are killed in the line of duty all over the world more often than we would all like. Some feel that militarizing the police will protect better those who protect and serve. Using advanced military robotics may well be the solution, they might think.

Johannesburg, South Africa, has gone one step forward in that direction. Rather than put tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets with gangs armed with rocket launchers and other advanced weaponry, they have put mechanized robots. However, these robots are often used with police officers, since a computer can’t tell right from wrong. However, the programmer for the robot cops, a fellow named Deon Wilson (Patel).

Deon has a whole other idea in mind. He’s developed a program that would give the Scout robots artificial intelligence; the ability to learn, grow, expand and make moral judgments that they couldn’t possibly make in the field. What he doesn’t know is that Michelle Bradley (Weaver), the head of the company he works for, is deathly afraid of even the concept of A.I., knowing that it could mean the end of the human race.

More practical is Vincent Moore (Jackman), an ex-military man whose creation, a clunky AT-AT looking thing whose design was rejected by Bradley, has more practical reasons for being pissed at Deon – he wants his Scout project to fail. He wants it to fail miserably and then let his own devices come save the day. Everyone in the building knows that Moore is a piss-poor engineer but everyone is a little afraid of him because Moore is a little psycho.

After a Scout is badly damaged in the field it is assigned to get scrapped. Seeing an opportunity to see if he can make his creation work, Deon decides to bring home the spare parts to build a robot of his own and see if he can make the A.I. work. Instead, he’s intercepted by a gang led by Ninja and Yo-Landi (Ninja and Vi$$er, respectively) who want him to give them a means of turning off the Scouts so that they can undertake a grand heist that will in turn give them the cash to pay off Pitbull (Selema), a psychotic gang leader who they owe money to.

Instead of an off switch, they get Chappie (Copley), the robot with the A.I. Child-like and frightened, Chappie learns at an astonishing rate. Ninja wants to turn Chappie into an accomplice in the heist while Yo-Landi is more of a nurturing sort. Despite Deon’s best efforts to keep Chappie in the straight and narrow, Ninja and his mate Yankee (Cantillo) are turning on Chappie to the delights of Thug Life and Gangsta Rap.

But Chappie is developing a moral compass of his own and is torn between Ninja and Yo-Landi, whom he address as Daddy and Mommy, and Deon, his creator. What will Chappie become, and what will happen when he gets there?

Blomkamp is the South African director behind District 9 and Elysium. Both are dystopian sci-fi films that are not only well-made entertainment but thought-provoking as well. This is the latest in that particular trend, although quite frankly it’s not as successful as the first two.

Artificial Intelligence is a subject that is moving well out of the province of science fiction and into the realm of science. It’s something we’re getting closer to. The nominal villain of this film, Moore, opines that artificial intelligence is unpredictable and could decide at a moment’s notice that the easiest way to protect the world was to get rid of the human population. He does have a point.

But then again, Chappie is literally a child whose moral development is being overseen by thugs. I can imagine that would raise some red flags, although the Yo-Landi character is a bit more maternal and less harsh than her male counterpart.

Patel who rose to fame with Slumdog Millionaire has become an engaging, charismatic actor who is able to ensnare audience sympathies with just a smile. He has as expressive a face as anyone in the business and he uses it to good purpose here. Jackman for his part rarely plays the villain and while his point of view here at least is relatable, the character’s jealousy and bullying tactics make the character hissable. I hate to say it but Jackman is far too ingrained in the public consciousness as a hero to make as an effective villain as you might like. Weaver is simply one of the most compelling actresses of our time.

Copley supplies the motion capture for Chappie as well as his voice; he does a pretty serviceable job, particularly delivering some much-needed moments of pathos near the end of the film. Copley is no Andy Serkis (but then again, who is?) but he does make Chappie feel like an actual flesh and blood…er, nuts and bolts robot.

Where the movie falls down is in the casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er. They are both highly regarded rappers in South Africa and they have the look of the criminal gang down, but quite frankly they’re both horrible actors. Ninja is stiff and delivers his lines in kind of a colorless gruff voice that gives me the impression that he didn’t really want to be there while Yo-Landi’s child-like voice is so distracting that some of her dialogue simply becomes unlistenable. One wonders if the characters carried the same name as the rappers because Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with his wife, didn’t trust them to react to different character names while the cameras were running.

Blomkamp makes some tactical errors along the way besides the casting. The dialogue is often cheesy and doesn’t sound like real people talking. The abandoned industrial sites that are the hideouts for Pitbull’s gang as well as Ninja’s are indistinguishable from one another, while having Pitbull brandishing a solid gold machine gun may look gangsta but is impractical to say the least and ludicrous to be more accurate. There’s a lot more I could go into but it would be like kicking a dog while it’s down.

The movie has been fairly negatively received both by critics and at the box office and I can genuinely say that both critics and audience have it right. It isn’t to say that Chappie is without any merit whatsoever and should be avoided like a root canal on a healthy tooth – there is entertainment value here, it’s just that if you go in expecting something along the lines of District 9 you are going to leave disappointed. Blomkamp clearly is a talented director and has some major high profile projects lined up for the near future. Hopefully he’ll do a better job with them than he did with this.

REASONS TO GO: Some genuine moments of pathos. Dev Patel is engaging and Hugh Jackman makes for a decent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: Rappers are TERRIBLE actors. Missteps throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of violence, even more foul language and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappie’s rabbit ear antennae are a nod to the similar look of Briareos in the manga Appleseed of which Blomkamp is a fan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicentennial Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wrecking Crew

Transcendence


Johnny Depp's salary for the film is displayed behind him.

Johnny Depp’s salary for the film is displayed behind him.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Wallace Langham, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Olivia Dudley. Directed by Wally Pfister

Our attitudes towards technology tend to be split down the middle. On the one hand, we appreciate the wonders of it and become addicted to our laptops, our cell phones, our microwaves and our GPS devices. We eagerly speculate as to what amazing discoveries will be a part of our daily lives ten or twenty years down the line,

On the other hand, technology terrifies us. We tremble at the thought of atomic bombs, killer drones and artificial intelligence deciding that humanity is superfluous and wiping us all out like Skynet and Judgment Day. It isn’t hard to imagine our own hubris creating the seeds of our extinction.

Will Caster (Depp) is one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his wife and lab partner Evelyn (Hall) are on the verge of a major breakthrough, creating a machine that  will not only think analytically but feel emotions, thus having more brainpower than the combined intelligence of every human that ever lived. Scary stuff.

A little too scary for some. A group of what I guess you’d call technoterrorists – a group of angry young people out to stop technology from taking over our lives at all costs – launch a coordinated attack on artificial intelligence labs all over the country. Decades of research is wiped out in the space of hours and the possibility that the scientists will never reach their goal looms large. Worse still, Will was shot – well, grazed – but the bullet that grazed him was coated with a radioactive isotope that will kill him in a matter of weeks. You can’t say these terrorists didn’t learn well from the KGB.

Evelyn kind of loses it. She wants to save her husband but knows his body is doomed. After reading some research from a scientist who was killed in the attack, she realizes that consciousness can be uploaded into a computer – he had done it with a rhesus monkey. With no other option, she determines to follow this course. She needs help and recruits Max (Bettany), a fellow scientist and close friend to both Will and herself.

Because this untested research would never be sanctioned in any reputable lab, particularly with FBI Agent Buchanan (Murphy) keeping a close eye on things. Their mentor, Dr. Tagger (Freeman) is unlikely to be supportive either. As Will’s body deteriorates, the attempt is made. Eventually, Will’s body dies. Did his soul?

At first, it seems the effort went to naught but a single line of text – Is Anybody There? – tells them that their experiment was a success. In fact, better than; Evelyn is convinced that everything that was the essence of what Will Caster was lives on in this machine. In a sense, she has become a modern Frankenstein.

But is this really Will? When circumstances force her to upload Will to the Internet, things begin to take a sideways step. Will manipulates bank accounts and stock, allowing Evelyn to create a kind of data fortress in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Will has started making breakthroughs in cell regeneration, allowing those who are infirm to be healed. However, the down side is that Will’s source code is also uploaded into these recipients of his generosity, making them in essence worker bees with greatly enhanced strength and speed.

Evelyn watches this with horror despite the apparently benign intentions of the new Will machine. However, if he is making fundamental changes to the DNA of the people of this town, will he use this ability to control them? And if so, will there be any true humans left?

Depp has had a string of missteps on the big screen lately and this one, according to the box office figures, isn’t going to break that string although in terms of quality it is certainly an improvement over his last couple of films. This is intelligent sci-fi, raising questions about our increasing reliance on technology as well as how much we’re willing to give up for comfort and safety. These aren’t easy questions to answer nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to give you any.

This is one of Depp’s most low-key performances in ages. Caster talks in a kind of monotone, probably because he’s so busy thinking. We rarely see any emotion out of Depp and therein lies the problem; Caster is already robotic by the time he becomes a machine. The change isn’t terribly noticeable. Hall, with a Cambridge education, seems overly hysterical here in playing a rational scientist although if I’d seen the love of my life waste away after being shot by terrorists, I might be a bit hysterical too.

Only Bettany acquits himself nicely here, although Murphy and Freeman are solid in small roles. The acting here doesn’t really stand out but the special effects and set design do. There is a sleek futuristic look to the Caster compound and the digital effects, while not breakthroughs, are at least wow-inducing for the most part.

I do like the concept although the film isn’t always true to its inner logic and at the end of the day, falls just shy of being a much better film than just merely entertaining. There is a lot to digest here and while it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is at least better than some of the more visceral sci-fi entries of recent years.

REASONS TO GO: Great effects. Nice concept. Keeps you guessing.

REASONS TO STAY: Misses the mark. Occasional overuse of technobabble.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence (some of it bloody), a bit of sensuality and occasional foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pfister’s debut as a director. Previously he has been a renowned cinematographer working for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Kevin MacDonald.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lawnmower Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Heaven is For Real

Her


A selfie of a happy schlub.

A selfie of a happy schlub.

(2013) Science Fiction Romance (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Kristen Wiig (voice), Bill Hader (voice), Matt Letscher, David Azar, Portia Doubleday, Brian Cox (voice), Laura Kai Chen, Gracie Prewitt, Robert Benard, Lisa Cohen, Claudia Choi. Directed by Spike Jonze

There has been a revolution in personal communication. We now have more ways than ever to communicate with one another. Why then are we becoming less connected?

In the near future, a man named Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) – a name a screenwriter might have given a comic character in, say, 1926 – lives in a downtown high-rise. He once wrote for the L.A. Weekly but now works for a dot-com that offers the service of writing handwritten letters for those who don’t have the time or the gift to do it themselves. Theo’s letters are beautiful and emotionally expressive but for some reason he has trouble expressing his own emotions to those around him. His wife Catherine (Mara) has finally given up on Theo, and the two are divorcing for the most part acrimoniously although clearly Theo is still hung up on Catherine.

Smart phones have gotten smarter in the future and do more for us. Now there’s a new Operating System for our computers – one which is a true artificial intelligence, learning and growing as it becomes used to you and your needs. The voice of Theo’s calls herself Samantha (Johansson). At first, she’s a super-efficient personal assistant, making sure he makes his meetings and appointments, checking his e-mail and text messages for him and so forth. However, she has a curiosity about things and Theo is more than happy to help her out. Soon he feels a kind of connection to this disembodied voice and why shouldn’t he? She’s programmed to serve his needs.

However that connection grows and deepens as she becomes the perfect woman for him. They even engage in a kind of cybersex that is at once erotic and disturbing. He’s fallen in love and that’s not even considered weird – his good friend Amy (Adams) who is undergoing the break-up of her own marriage of eight years has also developed a deep friendship with her own personalized operating system.

But there are drawbacks to this new kind of love. There’s no physical body, no physical connection. Sure there’s cybersex but no touching. Surrogates (Doubleday) are tried but for Theo it doesn’t really work well. The relationship is largely inside his head and the physical presence is almost an intrusion. When he goes on a blind date with a particularly needy girl (Wilde) that doesn’t work either.

What kind of future do these relationships have, particularly when one party is growing – or perhaps more accurately evolving – at a significantly faster rate than the other? For the moment Theo doesn’t care – he is just learning to enjoy the moment thanks to Samantha.

The movie asks some really deep questions – what is love, and what does it mean to be human? Both of them are intrinsically tied up with one another. For those who might think it far-fetched to fall in love with a voice, consider this; many people have fallen in love with people they’ve only texted and chatted with on the Internet. Are their feelings any less valid because they haven’t had physical intimacy? Of course, the difference is that there’s a potential for physical intimacy whereas in Theo’s case there simply isn’t.

Phoenix is given maybe the toughest job an actor can get – take what is essentially an uninteresting guy and make him relatable to the audience. In that sense, his performance may not be getting any Oscar buzz but it may be as great a performance as those that are receiving it. Theo is the kind of guy we’d never spare a second glance at with his throwback mustache and excuse-me air.

Adams shows more vulnerability than I can recall in any of her performances. It’s a far cry from her role in American Hustle where she is outwardly tough and smart but inwardly has issues. Here her character has been sapped of strength and vitality by life; she is working on a documentary film that will serve as her dissertation but there’s no life to the project; it’s inert and boring and she knows it. She hasn’t given up exactly – she’s still a good friend to Theo – but this Amy has lost her way.

Jonze who has mostly made quirky pictures from the scripts of other people wrote this one himself and he throws all sorts of fine little details – for example, the future fashion isn’t having your pants down around your ass but instead up high and there are a lot of earth tones. There are no flying cars but there are high speed trains that take you just about anywhere. Even L.A.’s skyline resembles that of Shanghai (which is a bit of an inside joke since the Shanghai skyline was used in place of L.A.’s).

The question is here not just what humans are but what we are becoming. There is a bit of parable to the proceedings here. We have become obsessed with being connected but make no connections. How many times have you gone to a restaurant and seen everyone at the table texting away on their smart phones? Even when we’re together we aren’t present. Is that unhealthy or is it simply adapting to our new technology? I suspect that it’s a little bit of both.

Some movies tells us their views on the human condition and that alone gives us something to think about. Her is more about pointing out the direction we’re heading in and allowing you to draw your own conclusions. This is the kind of movie you’ll be turning over in your head and discussing with your friends for weeks after you leave the theater. I can’t think of higher praise than that.

REASONS TO GO: Examines what it is to be human. Thought-provoking. Believable future.

REASONS TO STAY: The emotional resonance may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few instances of rough language, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the filming of some of the rougher emotional scenes, Amy Adams would sing songs from Broadway musicals to cheer herself back up. Phoenix soon began joining her but both stopped when they noticed Jonze filming their impromptu duets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wall-E

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Answers to Nothing